U.S. Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina switched from the Democratic Party to the GOP in September 1964.
Thurmond was elected governor of South Carolina on the Democratic ticket in 1946. He was also elected to the Senate as a Democrat in 1954 and 1960. Known for his support of military power and his opposition to civil rights legislation, Thurmond represented a growing conservatism in southern politics. In 1964, he switched parties and gave his support to Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater.
Born in Edgefield, James Strom Thurmond graduated from Clemson College (now Clemson University) in 1923. He was admitted to the bar in 1930, elected to the South Carolina State Senate in 1933, and was a circuit court judge from 1938 to 1941. After a successful military career in World War II, he was elected governor.
As governor, Thurmond oversaw several progressive reforms. He expanded funding for the state’s educational system and supported women’s involvement in government. But as the 1948 presidential election approached, civil rights emerged as a national issue, and Thurmond was outspoken in his support for the right of each state to regulate social issues within its borders.
When delegates from Alabama and Mississippi walked out of the 1948 Democratic Convention in Philadelphia, Thurmond and the South Carolina delegates did not join them. But he did meet with them in Birmingham as they organized the States’ Rights Democratic Party, or Dixiecrats. The group nominated Thurmond as their presidential candidate. Thurmond won 39 electoral votes. Two years later, he attempted to unseat U.S. Senator Olin D. Johnson but was unsuccessful. Then, in 1954, U.S. Senator Burnet Maybank of South Carolina died unexpectedly, and Thurmond was a popular write-in candidate. He won over 63 percent of the vote. Once in the Senate, he became an outspoken segregationist.
In 1956, Thurmond supported the “Southern Manifesto,” which called for resistance to the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision. His record-setting filibuster occurred in 1957 when he spoke against a civil rights bill. Thurmond continued to be a voice of opposition to civil rights legislation through the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. Once he sided with the Republicans, he was instrumental in Richard Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” to obtain the support of white voters.
As a Republican senator, Thurmond served consecutive terms from 1964 through 2003. During this long service, he gradually altered his segregationist views. In 1971, he was the first member of the southern congressional delegation to hire a black legislative assistant. He began to pay attention to South Carolina’s African American politicians and their constituents. In 1980, Thurmond became chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee and eventually supported renewal of the Voting Rights Act. He also voted to establish a holiday in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.
In 1994, at age 92, Thurmond became chairman of the Armed Services Committee and president pro tempore of the Senate. When he turned 100 years old in 2002, he was the oldest person ever to serve as a senator. In January 2003, he resigned his seat. He died in Edgefield the following June.